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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con):
I am sure that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) has commanded a lot of support for her speech. She speaks from experience and with authority, especially on the difficulties faced by people with disabilities, and I am sure that the Minister of State and the rest of the House will have listened to her with great sympathy.
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The House also listened with great admiration to the speech by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine). He has popped out of the Chamber for a moment, but he spoke with great fluency and real commitment, and I am sure that he will become a valuable Member of the House. However, I must join him in regretting the reason for his presencethe terrible tragedy last August that took away one of the most consummate parliamentarians of the age.
I feel the loss particularly strongly. Robin Cook was one of the first people I saw on my delayed return to the House, and he greeted me very warmly. He said that something had to be done about the problem that I had faced, and that he would help me. Indeed, his name appears on the face of the private Member's Bill that I introduced on 6 July, as one of its sponsors.
In that context, I am grateful for the help given to me by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who opened the debate for the Opposition today. However, I am particularly grateful for the help given by the Minister of State and her officials. She was faced with a dilemma: she was sympathetic to my Bill but had to decide whether to support it, as every private Member's Bill is somewhat deficient in drafting. The alternative was to tack my proposals on to this Government Bill.
The Minister of State discussed the matter with me, and I readily accepted her preferred solution. She proposed that I should seek leave to introduce amendments during the Committee stage on the Floor of the House that, in effect, would incorporate the main points of my Bill into the Government's proposals.
Given the help that I have received, I am afraid that I shall not support the Opposition's reasoned amendment later tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire will fully understand that that is because I want to see this Bill, imperfect as it might be, on the statute book. In this matter, I take the line adopted by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). He and my hon. Friend made several pointsfor example, about deposits and voting rights for prisonerswith which I agree entirely. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman about the length of the campaign, but nevertheless, this is a Bill that can be improved in Committee as long as it is approached in a consensual way by hon. Members of all parties.
I want to concentrate on the matter that caused me so much concern and which delayed my return to the House. I do not speak in any sense selfishly, as I would not want any hon. Member, of any party, to have to go through what I went through. Tragically, my Liberal Democrat opponent in my constituency died on the Saturday before polling day. Friends in the Liberal Democrat party, both locally and nationally, wondered whether they could help, but there was nothing that anybody could do to accelerate the process.
As a result, we had to wait seven weeks to hold the election. My constituents were disfranchised for all that time. For South Staffordshire, that was something of an inconvenience, and for me it was a frustration. However, if the delay had affected Mr. Speaker, for instance, he could not have been elected to the Chair. If it had affected the Prime Minister, he could not have
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addressed the House on the day of the Queen's Speech. Indeed, given that the Labour party constitution states that the leader of the party must be a Member of Parliament, it is arguable whether he could have remained Prime Minister.
Another matter that must be borne in mind is that this is an age when people campaign in some rather strange ways. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a person campaigning on a euthanasia ticket might deliberately take his or her own life, or that a terrorist might do likewise. As it is stands, the law allows a person to stand in as many constituencies as he or she can find the deposits and the names for.
On 6 July, I referred on the Floor of the House to the case of the lady who stood in all four Cardiff seats. She picked up fewer than 400 votes in all, and in one seat registered only one votepresumably her own. However, if she had died, whether tragically or deliberately, there would have been no representation in that city.
I remember the elections in February and October 1974. If something similar had happened then, the Government of the day could have been in doubt. The House might also cast its mind back to what happened in Germany recently. That election shows that such difficulties can be dealt with much more expeditiously than is possible for us at present. The death of a candidate in Dresden delayed the election there for two weeks, compared with the seven weeks here. Therefore, I shall introduce amendments to the Bill that will attempt to address the question of delay.
I shall also table an amendment that would prevent a delay if an independent candidate in an election were to die. After all, the Prime Minister had many independent candidates standing against him. Independent candidates are sui generis, by definition, and there is no replacement if one dies. I am delighted to say that the Government have accepted the force of that argument.
Mark Tami: All hon. Members felt for the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman suffered as a result of the tragic death of the Liberal Democrat candidate in his constituency, and we all knew that we could be put in the same position. He is right to say that we must deal with the problem, which could have dramatic consequences, especially in the circumstances of a hung Parliament or a very close result.
The Minister of State did not agree with me on one point, and I accept her argument. I wanted some threshold to be established for smaller parties, but she and the Electoral Commission were very uneasy about defining the differences between genuine parties and ones that are less genuine. In parenthesis, however, I think that she really ought to think again about the question of the deposit. A proliferation of candidates from fringe parties could create a problem that she and I would prefer to avoid. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire made some telling points in advancing the argument on that issue.
The Minister of State agrees with me that nominations should not reopen for new candidates. The difficulties that I experienced happened during a general
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election, not a by-election, so I did not cease to be a Member of Parliament. When a general election vote is delayed in such circumstances, the poll that is finally held should replicate the general election as far as possible. However, the law as it stands allowed the Labour party to substitute a candidate.
I make no personal criticism of that, as the lady in question had very good reasons for standing down, but the same mechanism could be used to shoehorn into a constituency high-profile people who had lost elsewhere.
Equally there were three other fringe candidates who had not signified their desire to fight in the general election who suddenly appeared on the scene. I do not think that that is right. Some people have tried to argue that everything should open again, but it should not. It is the general election. Everyone has the right to decide whether to contest a particular constituency, and if they decide to do so, they should still stand in any delayed general election. However, if they want to withdraw, they must convince the returning officer that they have a very good reason to do so. They are not substituted. In this instance I think that the Minister of State has strengthened the provision that I included in my Bill.
I am delighted that the Minister has accepted the need to tackle the problem of multiple candidatures. We live in an age that is very different from that of which we are reminded at the beginning of every state opening when the Speaker says that all of those elected for more than one constituency must hereby declare which one they wish to represent, or words to that effect. That is one of the first things that is said at the beginning of a new Parliament.
We all know that the days of hedging bets by standing for a second constituency, as some illustrious people in the past did, have long gone. Nowadays, multiple candidature is used by the maverick or eccentric candidate. So we are not limiting the right of any man or any women to stand in any constituency of his or her choice. We are merely saying, "Make your choice and stand in that constituency, not in a dozen others."
Imagine the mayhem that could be caused, deliberately or accidentally, if someone decided to stand against every member of the Cabinet or every member of the shadow Cabinet, and then died or killed himself. We would suddenly have constitutional mayhem. We can relax because my experience was merely an inconvenience for me and my constituents, but it could have precipitated a constitutional crisis, especially if the result of the election had been much closer than it was.
I think that my experience has highlighted some bad law. I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which she has responded. I am grateful also to all those Members in all parts of the House who agreed to sponsor my Bill, including the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), and three very senior Liberal Democrats. When I come to move my amendments, I will have drafted them with the help that has been offered by the Minister. I hope that they will be accepted by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope also that when the next general election comes, whenever that might be, there will be no Member who will have to go through what I and the electors of
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South Staffordshire had to experience on 23 June, or in waiting for 23 June. I appeal for help when I move my amendments. I hope that many members will sign up to them.
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